New Delhi: The Supreme Court has compiled a glossary of words that judges should avoid while writing orders, and lawyers should steer clear of while filing cases, in a bid to weed out gender stereotypes that are not only demeaning and retrograde but can also cloud judgements.
The initiative, a brainchild of Chief Justice of India (CJI) D Y Chandrachud, lists some commonly used phrases used in the context of women, children and sexual crimes, and some commonly held notions about gender, in a book tilted Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes.
The book, released by the CJI on Wednesday, has an exhaustive list of words and phrases to avoid, and alternative terms or sentences that can be used instead.
Words and phrases to be junked include “slut”, “harlot”, “seductress”, “fallen woman”, “woman of easy virtue”, and descriptors such as “Indian woman”, “western woman”, “career woman” or “chaste woman”. All these, the book says, should be replaced simply with “woman”.
The book advises against using adjectives such as “dutiful”, “faithful” and “obedient” for a “wife”; replaces “housewife” with “homemaker”, an “affair” with a “relationship outside marriage”, “prostitute” with “sex worker”, and the troublingly euphemistic “eve-teasing” with the more accurate “street sexual harassment”.
The handbook, a digital copy of which was uploaded to the Supreme Court website, also emphasises on veering away from terms such as “adulteress”, “concubine” or “mistress”.
In case of children or juveniles, the glossary lists out words ranging from the demeaning “bastard” to making suggestions such as someone is of “marriageable age”.
“The handbook aims to assist judges and the legal community in identifying, understanding and combating stereotypes about women,” CJI Chandrachud wrote in the foreword to the book.
While this handbook is not mandatory for judges and lawyers to follow, the CJI underlined the need for having one. “Relying on predetermined stereotypes in judicial decision-making contravenes the duty of judges to decide each case on its merits, independently and impartially. In particular, reliance on stereotypes about women is liable to distort the law’s application to women in harmful ways,” he said.
The handbook states,“If harmful stereotypes are relied on by judges, it can lead to a distortion of the objective and impartial application of the law. This will perpetuate discrimination and exclusion.”
“If a judge relies on preconceived assumptions about people or groups when deciding cases or writing judgements, the harm caused can be enormous. Stereotypes impact the impartiality and the intellectual rigour of judicial decisions where they cause judges to ignore or bypass the requirement of law or distort the application of the law vis-à-vis specific persons or groups,” the handbook added. “The intention is not to criticise or cast doubt on past judgements but merely to show how stereotypes may unwittingly be employed.”
A press release issued by the Supreme Court said that the “groundbreaking initiative” is aimed at fulfilling the judiciary’s goal of eradicating “preconceived gender stereotypes” from judicial discourse, especially those concerning women.
The handbook also identified reasoning patterns that can cloud judgments, listing out stereotypes based on “inherent characteristics” of women, perpetuated gender roles, and notions based on sex or sexual violence.
Some of the reasonings that can cloud judgments, the book said, includes all women want to have children; women are overly emotional and cannot take decisions; women ought to be submissive or subordinate to men; wives should do all household chores and look after her husband’s parents; women who are homemakers do not contribute to household; and working women do not care about their children.
The list also addresses why the thinking about women’s attire, and habits such as smoking or drinking, cannot become a contributing factor in sexual crimes and a defence for persons accused of such crimes. “The clothing or attire of a woman neither indicates that she wishes to engage in sexual relations nor is it an invitation to touch her.... their choice of clothing represents a form of self-expression that is independent of questions of sexual relations,” the handbook said.
The book also condemned the idea of the marriage of the victim with her rapist as a way to undo the offence of rape. “The marriage of the rapist to the survivor / victim does not restore honour. Rather, it intensifies the trauma faced by the survivor / victim and encourages the rapist to engage in further violence. Marriage is not a remedy to the violence of rape,” it said.
The exhaustive compilation was possible due to the brainstorming done by a subcommittee of the Supreme Court’s e-Committee which includes high court justices Moushumi Bhattacharya and Pratibha Singh, and professor Jhuma Sen, the document said.
Senior advocate Rebecca M John said, “Gender stereotyping happens all the time. We had appalling language used against women in judgments. It is good to have a glossary which is pretty broad-based. Coming from CJI, this may help judges to steer away from using language which stereotypes women. Though it is a good start, but for stereotyping of women to end, it will require more than just a handbook.”